In 2018, flooding from Hurricane Florence inundated coal ash storage facilities and hog waste lagoons in North Carolina, discharging pollution into floodwaters downstream and spreading the contamination – toxic metals and fecal matter – throughout the state’s southeastern communities. The incident was neither unprecedented nor unpredictable. Rather, the history of storm-driven spills and the impacts to some of the state’s most vulnerable communities is well-documented and understood. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd triggered flooding and subsequent discharges from at least 61 hog facilities and waste lagoons. Then in 2016, rainfall from Hurricane Matthew caused spills from dozens of hog waste lagoons and from at least two coal ash facilities. Extreme precipitation was also implicated in coal ash spills in 2008 and 2017.
In 2017, flooding from Hurricane Harvey caused widespread industrial spills along the Gulf Coast’s expansive petrochemical corridor. Based upon self-reported incidents alone, at least 22,000 barrels of petroleum products and other toxic chemicals were spilled in the floodwaters at facilities in Texas. A spill of gasoline at a storage facility in Galena Park, near Houston, accounted for half of reported spills. In one analysis, the Union of Concerned Scientists identified more than 650 industrial facilities in Texas and Louisiana that were potentially exposed to floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey.
Along with spills of liquid chemicals, flooding also contributed to uncontrolled air emissions of more than 360 tons of toxic chemicals from the Valero Energy refinery and other Houston facilities. Flooding damaged the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, resulting in explosions of hazardous organic peroxides and wastewater spills amounting to more than 23,000 pounds of contamination.
Subsequent monitoring uncovered elevated levels of heavy metals, dioxins, and other toxic contaminants in homes and soils near the plant. In another example, flooding contributed to the failure of containment structures at the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund site, likely causing toxic dioxins to be carried downstream to flooded communities. After the storm, community and environmental advocates successfully pushed the EPA to require the facility owners to remove the contaminated sediment from the flood-prone waste site.3